Illusions of the Powerful

Peregrine Falcon (Falco Peregrinus)
Peregrine Falcon (Falco Peregrinus)

The pigeon pecking at day-old baguette in St. Louis Square never fails to keep an eye on the peregrine perched on the maple by the fountain. But when the falcon’s eating her meal, later on that day, she does so in peace, without a care in the world. She loses herself in the pleasure of the moment, like a wine-soaked Epicurean, moaning her way through an exquisite five-course meal.

But isn’t it always so with the food chain? Parents have far more illusions about their kids than their kids have about them; employers have far more illusions about their employees than their employees have about them; masters have far more illusions about their slaves than their slaves have about them; and men have far more illusions about women than women have about men.

Because the powerful can afford to be self-absorbed; those who lack power cannot: It’s a luxury they simply can’t afford. They must be watchful, vigilant, alert, and aware. And they need to spend a great deal of time observing the powerful very carefully. For that very reason, the slave comes to know her master very well—better, perhaps, than he knows himself—but the master can’t seem to remember her name.

After years of being an overweight sweetheart, this guy I knew in high school started working out, lost all of the weight and, seemingly overnight, got majorly ripped and thoroughly hot. Before this dramatic transformation, he had plenty of female friends who adored him and confided in him, but never hooked up with him. The girls saw him as a sweet, understanding, empathetic guy. But soon after his manly metamorphosis, he became a repulsive “bro” who used girls with the indifference of a sociopath—and, just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about a garden-variety player; I’m talking about a full-blown misogynistic asshole with the conscience of a turnip! At one point I confronted him about his nasty behavior: “What happened to you? You used to be such a nice guy.” “I’m hot now,” he said, with a sleazy smile, “and you don’t have to be nice when you’re hot.”

That’s when I realized that he was, in fact, always an asshole; he was just really good at hiding it. The power that came with his newfound hotness afforded him the opportunity to behave in ways that accorded with inclinations that were always there. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s aphorism—“You will never know if someone is an asshole until he becomes rich”—follows the same logic: money doesn’t make people mean, it just allows mean people to be mean. Or, to put it another way, as Taleb once did on his Facebook page, in a clarifying remark: “People reveal their temperament when they have choices.”

Paul Piff’s research into the relationship between social class and unethical behavior suggests that Taleb may be wrong about this. In numerous experiments, he has demonstrated that you can turn a completely normal person into a sociopathic jerk. It’s actually quite easy: just give them some power. If Piff is right, then it’s not so much that latent asshole tendencies are brought out by wealth but that wealth (in and of itself) can turn many perfectly normal people into assholes. The anthropologist Helga Vierich has summarized this research nicely: “Human nature has a flaw. Under conditions of apparent competition, when a hierarchy of relative winners and losers is created, NO MATTER HOW, the people at the top tend to fall for something called a ‘self-affirmation fallacy’ which causes them to attribute their high status to their own merits and qualities—even if they became rich by winning at some gamble which could have gone the other way. BEING rich literally makes people change, makes people less sympathetic, less compassionate, less law-abiding, less honest.”

Money can be profoundly liberating. This is especially true if you’ve been financially dependent, for years, upon one of those sad souls who use money to control people. I’ve seen this first-hand: the 44-year-old wife who can finally leave her abusive asshole of a husband because she’s got a job and an income of her own; the 22-year-old college graduate who can finally get out from under the thumb of his psychotic controlling mom because he’s no longer dependent upon her for books and tuition. It’s equally gratifying to behold the plumber who has, at long last, gotten to the point where he can afford to turn away rude customers and say NO to crappy weekend jobs he doesn’t want.

If you come into a small fortune, it frees you from the need to suck-up to people you despise, work for a boss you hate, live with a spouse you no longer love, or bite your tongue when you’re surrounded by idiots. In The Black Swan (2007), Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to that magical point in his life when he became financially independent as the moment when he got his “fuck you money”—viz., the moment when he’d made enough money that he no longer had to put up with other people’s bullshit. This kind of freedom—this newfound autonomy and independence—is perhaps the greatest of money’s blessings. But it’s often money’s greatest curse too. Because blissful isolation can so easily turn into soul-crushing loneliness.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

3 thoughts on “Illusions of the Powerful

  1. Hey John! Always such a pleasure to read your thought-provoking narratives written with this unmistakable real dimension. I was wondering whether you want to make the point that people just are who they are (at some point) as with the nerd-to-buff-asshole scenario, or whether externalities, like money, can change a person, sometimes for the better (as in the case of emancipation) and sometimes for the worse (as in the case of the abusive master-like types) and if so, do you hold that this renders us in a totally precarious position (as with Paul Piff’s view that “you can turn a completely normal person into a sociopathic jerk)”?


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